BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards has announced a move to Phase 3 of coronavirus restrictions in Louisiana. The new orders will remain in effect for 28 days, until March 31. The mask mandate in effect since July will remain in place.
“We’re currently moving in the right direction and have been for several weeks now, and certainly, we’re all gratified by that,” the Democratic governor said. “We know, however, we still have a lot of work to do before we get out of this pandemic.”
The new orders will go into effect Wednesday, replacing the current Phase 2 orders that had been extended with modifications multiple times since the governor announced a “step back” in late November. Under the new rules, Louisiana’s bars can reopen indoors, restaurants can hold more customers and churches won’t have capacity limits for worship services. Local mayors or parish presidents can still enact tougher limits.
Restaurants, cafes, spas, salons, movie theaters and other nonessential businesses that had been limited to 50% of their occupancy limit can move to 75% capacity. The exception is for gyms, which Edwards is requiring to stay at 50% capacity.
Music will be allowed at indoor locations again, though with a long list of requirements for venues from the fire marshal’s office and no dance floors allowed. Conferences and other gatherings can restart at convention centers, if the events get fire marshal approval for the setup.
Bars had largely been limited to outdoor service, delivery and to-go orders unless they have licenses to operate like restaurants. But under Edwards’ new rules, bars will be able to let customers back inside at 25% of their occupancy limit, with a maximum of 250 people.
If the bars are located in a parish that has seen low rates of coronavirus tests returning positive for two weeks, they can increase their indoor seating to 50% capacity, up to 250 people — if local parish leaders authorize it.
Patrons won’t be able to walk back and forth to the bar to order drinks, however. Direct table service will be required. An 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales will stay in place.
Religious services will have no limits on size, but Edwards’ new executive order still will require social distancing at churches. And different rules and limits will exist on other, non-worship service gatherings at churches.
Among other restrictions, indoor events such as weddings will be limited to 50% of a building’s capacity, with no more than 250 people.
Businesses can go to opensafely.la.gov for details on the updated restrictions.
Many of the capacity limits are similar to what Edwards enacted in September, but the governor toughened the rules in late November as Louisiana saw its third coronavirus surge.
“While we’re doing better and easing restrictions, no one should think that we’re out of the woods,” Edwards said. “The mitigation measures remain important, if we’re going to keep moving in the right direction. Especially with the emergence of the new variant, which is still predicted by many to be the predominant strain of the virus circulating in the country and in the state of Louisiana at some point this month.”
Since January, the state has seen sharp drops in confirmed cases of COVID-19 and people hospitalized with the disease. Hospitalizations stood at 629 patients Tuesday after topping 2,000 in January. Of those, 91 are in Northwest Louisiana hospitals.
The LDH reported 770 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 431,271. Another 19 deaths reported since Monday brings the total statewide to 9,647.
“Not since March the 22nd of last year have we reported zero deaths,” said Edwards. “I am eagerly looking forward to that day and I hope that day comes as soon as possible, that we can report zero deaths here in Louisiana.”
Louisiana’s daily average of new cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks has fallen 21%, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The percentage of tests returning positive for the disease has dropped to 5% statewide, after reaching more than 13% at one point in early January.
Meanwhile, 14% of the state’s population has received at least the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that have been available since December. As of Monday, Louisiana had surpassed 1 million administered doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. More than 368,000 people have gotten both required doses, according to the state health department.
Louisiana ranked 32nd among states Tuesday in the number of vaccine doses administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state fell behind in its vaccine distribution because of a week of icy, snowy weather.
The state hopes to do some catching up as a third vaccine, the single-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson, starts rolling out this week. State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said the state is getting 37,000 doses of the newest vaccine. In addition to the 57,330 doses expected to come from Pfizer and another 45,000 Moderna doses, the state expects to have just over 102,000 doses for the coming week.
However, Kanter said the White House advised states that they should not expect any additional shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until the end of the month. President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday afternoon that Merck & Co Inc will help make rival Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine in a partnership intended to help ramp up production.
That news comes as more cases of the UK variant of COVID-19 are confirmed in the state. Kanter said a total of 18 cases are now confirmed statewide, with 58 suspected cases pending confirmation by the CDC. Kanter said cases have been identified in every region of the state except for 3 (Houma-Thibodaux) and 8 (Northeast). He believes there are likely already cases in those regions that have not yet been detected.
“The CDC still thinks the UK variant cases are doubling in number every ten days,” Kanter said, warning that cases in Louisiana are likely to increase in transmission, as well. “What we hope to do is build up enough of a base of vaccine, enough protected individuals to fight against that variant when the variant’s numbers increase.”
In the meantime, Kanter is urging the public to remain vigilant just a little bit longer, “because we think this is a real window we have right now to set ourselves up for what might be coming with this variant.”
Governor Edwards also announced on Tuesday that Louisiana legislators and their support staff at the capitol building in Baton Rouge will be added to the current list of people eligible to receive the vaccine ahead of the start of the April legislative session.
Edwards held the briefing before getting his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday afternoon in Baton Rouge. He received his first dose of the Pfizer-manufactured vaccine on February 9, the same day he last extended the Phase 2 current coronavirus restrictions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.